Published September 03, 2010
LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska fans haven't forgotten that one-point loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game and they're still celebrating next year's move to the Big Ten.
But the biggest topic of conversation in Big Red country has been about who will start at quarterback when the No. 8 Cornhuskers open the season against Western Kentucky on Saturday night.
"I think it will come down to the last-minute call," offensive lineman Ricky Henry said.
Pelini probably can't go wrong regardless of who he chooses for this game. After all, the Sun Belt Conference's Hilltoppers have lost 20 games in a row and are five-touchdown underdogs.
The Huskers have their highest preseason ranking since 2001 and will be in position to make a run at the national championship if their offense improves. The Ndamukong Suh-led defense carried the Huskers a year ago while the offense scuffled along to a No. 99 national ranking.
"We know that we didn't live up to everything that was expected last year," receiver Brandon Kinnie said.
Lee started 12 of 14 games and was serviceable, though the Huskers went through a brutal patch where they scored four touchdowns over four games. He had surgery on his right (throwing) elbow after the season, forcing him to miss spring practice.
Green and Martinez did enough in the spring to make it a three-man race that, Pelini predicted, could last until October.
"They've played at a high level," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "They've had to, to stay in the hunt. It's been a great competition and it's really, really close."
Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead give the Huskers a 1-2 punch at running back, the offensive line is deep and the Niles Paul-led receiving corps is experienced.
Jared Crick, Suh's partner on the defensive line, and cornerback Prince Amukamara lead a unit expected to be stingy even with Suh gone to the NFL. The Huskers were left vulnerable at linebacker when Sean Fisher broke his leg last month, and there will be two new starters at safety.
The Hilltoppers will be going against an opponent that has won 24 straight openers. Nebraska has scored at least 40 points 17 times during the streak and given up 14 points or less 16 times.
"For us to have a chance, we have to be on our 'A' game," first-year WKU coach Willie Taggart said. "They have an opportunity to win a national championship this year. But anything is possible ... If we're not sharp, we're not going to have a chance."
This is another in a line of money games for the Hilltoppers, who'll earn $800,000 for their visit to Memorial Stadium. Since 2008, they've also visited Tennessee, Alabama and Virginia Tech.
"That most definitely is going to help us," WKU defensive end Jared Clendenin said. "We're not going to be in there with those big wide eyes. You know how it is when you walk in a big stadium like that. All you want to do is look around at the fans."
The Huskers are coming off a 10-4 year in which they won six of their last seven games, including a 33-0 Holiday Bowl win over Arizona.
All that stood between Nebraska and a BCS game was the 13-12 loss to Texas. The Longhorns kicked the winning field goal after one second was put back on the game clock.
Players are wearing reminders on their wrists — red rubber bracelets with the messages "0.01" and "FINISH" stamped in.
"It still comes up on ESPN Classic, and I can't watch it," Kinnie said. "It still eats at me. We have a lot of motivation, a lot to prove this year."